DAILY: February 10, 2020

“Run to the rescue with love and peace will follow …” – River Phoenix, as quoted by his little brother Joaquin last night at the Oscars

I found Joaquin Phoenix’s speech after he won his Oscar for Best Actor for Joker moving and even at times profound, and profoundly sweet.  I had had a conversation earlier in the evening about the planet as a living entity that is a part of a shared spiritual practice I have in common with a friend, a commonality that is in many ways the basis of our friendship. I responded to that in his speech: the commonality he was calling for us to find within ourselves. It would be so easy to be glib about his speech. But glibness was what he was asking us to put aside.

Joaquin’s brother River Phoenix would have turned 50 later this year. Here are a couple of photos of him from my time with him down in Key West where his brother and sister – Joaquin (then known as Leaf) and Summer – were making a movie called Russkies back in 1987. The whole family was down there with them and I flew down to do a story on the family for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine where I was then Executive Editor.

River and I bonded a bit over the several days I was down there. Here he is with his father after we had traded t-shirts. He loved this one I had recently brought back with me from Paris so I gave him the shirt off my back and he gave me the one off his. In the other photo, he is holding my old beat-up Paul Stuart fedora after he had admired it. Lovely memories of a lovely young man gone too soon.

I had a great time hanging out with the family – especially his mother. Carole King played Joaquin’s mother in the film – I think I’m getting her role correct – and she kept attempting to horn in on the interview with the family and really got on my nerves, bless her heart. I found her rather needy but then realized she was not in her element and felt out-of-place on a movie set and probably was needy. I should have been more empathetic as I look back on it all now. The Phoenix’s mother seemed to wish she had a bit more empathy for her, too, if I remember that correctly as well.

Another photo I had for years from that visit to the Phoenix family down there was a beautiful portrait of all the Phoenix siblings standing on a beach as if they were walking on water at low tide. When I was doing a cover story years later for Vanity Fair on Liv Tyler, who was dating Joaquin then, I gave it to her to give to him after I had told him about it on a phone call we had had about Liv. He later called to thank me for the photo. He was so sweet in my interactions with him, even breaking down in tears when expressing his gratitude for that photo I gave him.

It was a kind of enchanted time for that family, I think, when they were all together in paradise before it disappeared into a horizon that will forever hover over the haze of River. I am grateful that I – a stranger, an interloper, an addict who understands what it is like to lose enchantment and find the firmer ground of recovery that replaces it – was able to share that more innocent time with them all. Each time I see Joaquin, I think of of that time before his beloved brother became a haze in his life, that lovely time when he was Leaf, when horizons held not darkness but the hope of more light yet to come.

Here’s to light. And to the Leaf that still lives in the man.

  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

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